Review: Inglourious Basterds
Inglourious Basterds
For the last ten years I have heard tale of Quentin Tarantino's World War II epic Inglorious Basterds (though the misspelling is new). I read of his epic ideas, his sprawling (at one point over 600 pages) script, and his desire to make the single greatest war movie ever filmed. In this respect, as in several others, he has failed. Yet if you walk into the movie expecting the standard Tarantino moments"”well picked musical selections, excellent dialogue and the occasional explosion of gruesome violence you will leave the theater largely satisfied, if a little empty inside.

The film tells several converging stories, all eventually tied around a movie premiere in Paris that will be attended by most of the German High Command, and thus will be a target by resistance fighters of all stripes. They come in the form of Shosanna Dreyfuss (Melanie Laurent), a young Jew using a pseudonym who owns the cinema at which the premiere will be screened; Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) a British film critic turned spy; Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a German movie star turned double agent; and of course, the titular band of Jewish American soldiers lead by the crass, sardonic Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). The forces allayed against them amount to the entire Third Reich, mostly embodied in the form of a charismatic, gleefully amoral Nazi "Jew Hunter" named Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz).

The performance by Waltz quickly becomes the movie's shining achievement. At once polite and cunning, comforting and prosecutorial, good humored and downright evil, Waltz imbues Landa with the perfect mixture of giddy schoolboy and seasoned interrogator. Pitt also gives a great performance, though much of it feels very one note"”he is never given any time to develop the character, and as such, there is not much to work with. Raine wants to kill Nazis, and do so while spouting inappropriate one-liners, but that is about the extent of what we learn about him by the film's end (that and he speaks pretty awful Italian). Fassbender is great as the suave critic turned soldier, turned spy, spinning British wit out of a quite good scene with his superior General Ed Fenech (Mike Myers, who feels less out of place than one might expect) and adding to perfectly mounting tensions in a basement tavern scene.

All in all, the film has moments of brilliance, even scenes that seem chopped from an excellent WWII thriller. But these scenes seem almost out of place in the movie Tarantino thinks he's making. At its best, Inglorious Basterd's looks into the souls of characters it considers soulless and plays like a vengeance tale lacking utterly the ambiguity that makes such stories interesting. Tarantino still builds tension like a master, still writes dialogue so well that conversations that span 20 minutes can be incredibly engrossing (even while often being far too long and redundant), and manages to pack this film with plenty of in-jokes and references to his earlier movies and to cinema at large. There are excellent discussions of the meaning behind King Kong, of the place cinema takes in history and in propaganda, and of when exactly something is considered a Mexican standoff, but on the whole, the film feels decidedly less epic than I believe was intended. For one thing, the Basterds of the title are almost entirely ignored throughout the movie (which, considering the lack of ambiguity in their mission and their one-sided, narrow-minded views might not be such a bad thing) and save one set-piece at the climax, so is the action one might expect from Tarantino's planned "greatest war movie of all time." In its place is a lot of overdrawn dialogue, interesting characters, and occasionally excellent direction. The film Tarantino ended up with is spotty at best"”when its good, it feels on the verge of greatness, but for most of its runtime (which to its credit never felt overly long), it feels startlingly un-attuned with the points it's trying to make and (as should be expected from our boy Quentin) almost dangerously in love with the sound of its own voice.

Grade: B-
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